Opportunities on a crowded planet


Common Wealth by Jeffrey SachsEvery decade or so the debate about the size of world population resumes. It is a crucial debate which can have major consequences for millions of people. But it is also a difficult debate, since the issues are complex, emotive and easily sensationalised.

The damaging and ongoing consequences of the global financial crisis make our current situation still more urgent. Before, many development specialists and economists were quietly confident the world had the resources to feed its growing population until population size levelled off at about 9 billion people in 2050, although this would require skill and effort on a global scale.

This commitment was evident in the UN Millennium Development Goals, which aimed to rapidly reduce hunger and the grossest poverty within decades. Importantly, the Goals included improved health outcomes for children and women, and increased educational opportunities for girls and young women. These aims were seen to be critical in curtailing excessive population growth rates.

While there has been major progress, particularly in Africa, the GFC has severely handicapped results. The economic crisis in developed countries savaged credit for developing countries, and resulted in perhaps 100 million people being pushed down into the most severe deprivation and hunger. The crisis reversed the steady progress that many countries had been making to reduce severe poverty.

The task of reducing global poverty suddenly became much harder.

To make matters worse, the threats arising from global warming and climate change challenged the assumptions agricultural experts had made about how to increase world food production at affordable prices. Droughts, floods and more extreme weather patterns were causing unexpected shortages, resulting in higher food prices and increased hunger for the poorest people.

No wonder some people are alarmed. Australian entrepreneur, Dick Smith, wrote recently that the world 'is already hitting against' its limits to growth. 'On a finite planet, we are ... literally exhausting the environment on which we rely for our survival.'

Even the eminent economist, Jeffrey Sachs, coordinator of the large group of economists who devised the details of the UN Millennium Development Goals, called for a cap on population of 8 billion in 2050. In his 2008 book, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet, Sachs nevertheless insisted that measures to reduce population growth must be voluntary and not coerced.

Given that world population is already at 7 billion, it is inconceivable that population size could be contained to 8 billion. Even though the birth rate in about 50 countries, including China, is already below population replacement levels, most people are living longer; and even if couples only had two children, population would still increase well beyond 8 billion.

Unless countries are prepared to implement draconian birth-control policies like China's, realistically there is no alternative but to prepare for a world of 9 billion people. The right of couples to decide how many children they will have is a fundamental human right. It is inconceivable that countries would willingly sacrifice such intimate and important freedoms.

Nevertheless, couples make their decisions about family size in the context of their culture, social environment and economic situation, and hence responsible decision-making will vary accordingly. Governments also try to educate their people about the costs or benefits of population size, and provide incentives to optimise family size.

Demographers have shed much light on the complex dynamics of population growth, and emphasised key factors in reducing high growth rates: alleviating poverty, improving social security, reducing child mortality, educating girls, and providing economic opportunities.

The good news is that excessive population growth rates can, and in many places have been, reduced by improving human wellbeing and economic opportunities.

Further, the projected increase in global population need not provoke a catastrophe. We have a wide array of new means of increasing food production and making better use of resources to offer all people the chance of a decent and humane standard of living.

We will of course need to be smarter and more modest in our use of resources, especially to wind back carbon emissions and to distribute wealth more equitably.

I do not for a moment underestimate the challenge before us in the next 40 to 50 years. It is a decisive moment in human history, when we have the opportunity to develop a sustainable economy and environment, not only to eliminate hunger and the worst poverty but to secure resources for future generations.

It is an unprecedented opportunity, but it is imperative that we manage this transition well.

Bruce DuncanDr Bruce Duncan is a Redemptorist priest who teaches in history and social justice areas at Yarra Theological Union in Melbourne, and is Director of the Yarra Institute for Religion and Social Policy at Box Hill. 

Topic tags: Bruce Duncan, population growth, Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet



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Existing comments

A number of demographers are more concerned about the demographic winter following the rise of population. With abortion rates so high in the world, a similar situation to that in Russia will occur - in Russia the population is falling by nearly a million a year in real terms. Putin is desperately trying to increase the birth rate as Russia faces a dire situation with the catastrophically low birth rate, ever since abortion was freely available in the Soviet years. The Chinese totalitarian policy - women are checked like animals each month by 'Family Police' and forcibly aborted if found pregnant with an 'unapproved' child - are slowing waking up to the long term demographic imbalance of their policy. Apart from the fact that it is mainly girls selected for abortion, there are long term social consequences of having few young and more old people, and many men with no women to marry. It is not totatlitarian control of numbers of births that is needed. Even if there were few people in a country - there would be some who would deny resources to others. Perhaps those interested in reading Julian Simon's account of resources might want to have a look at this site and read some parts of it. http://www.juliansimon.com/writings/Ultimate_Resource/ Oh, and by the way, try to tell the Muslim world to have fewer children. Any takers?

Skye | 05 July 2011  

"The right of couples to decide how many children they will have is a fundamental human right." Most women do not have that right - there are too many unwanted children - and abortions. "We have a wide array of new means of increasing food production and making better use of resources to offer all people the chance of a decent and humane standard of living." Please list these. Check the facts, and also what is lost - extinction of other species, loss of animal habitat, desertification, loss of sea food, etc. See population articles in http://home.vicnet.net.au/~ozideas/

valerie yule | 05 July 2011  

"Excessive population growth"? As Skye says, the far bigger issue for us in the West is the looming demographic winter. But even accepting that some developing countries are currently experiencing population booms, the overpopulation chicken littles of history (Rev Malthus anyone?) have always turned out to be wrong. www.overpopulationisamyth.com

Meg | 05 July 2011  

A timely, well reasoned article Bruce. I think that people in developed countries like Australia need to get used to the idea that they can no longer expect to be able to continue the life styles they have been used to if we want to face the problems of continued population growth, education of women, in particular, in poor countries where they are kept in subjection by an unsympathetic culture, and climate change, to name a few problems.

Tony Santospirito | 05 July 2011  

This is a bizarre take on things - especially for a Catholic. Newsflash: Italy, France and other Western countries are desperately subsidising an increase in their birthrate. Why? Because these ideologically liberal countries know that, notwithstanding their freewheeling attitudes to marriage and sex, at present replacement rates, their people will simply not exist in a couple of centuries. And the phenomenon is irreversible. Skye and Meg are right. Ever heard of Demographic Winter? Also, there's a hint of anti-human manichaeanism here. Skye is right to point to Julian Simon - the Catholic guy who smashed the manichaean, vasectomised anti-populationist Paul Erlich with that famous bet about the Erlich-alleged imminent exhaustion of the world's resources. Which horse did you back, Fr D? As Simon pointed out with study after study: human beings are characteristically very clever and creative. In the right conditions - ie respect for the rights of life and private property - virtually every human produces vastly more than he or she consumes. (My favourite example again: Hong Kong, 1950s to 1996). Given the appropriate conditions of ordered freedom, the earth is capable of sustaining vastly greater numbers of people than it now holds - and maintaining a healthy wilderness and biodiversity besides.

HH | 05 July 2011  

Why does the prospect of overall total overpopulation - not concern those intent on maintaining an alleged “human right” to breed indiscriminately? It’s no argument to say countries experience problems when they have low birth rates, because the issue at stake is the prospect of even bigger problems when they have unrestrained birth rates. Bruce Duncan’s right when he says the issue is emotive. Many of us may have children we cherish but I suspect the foundational premise on which the blanket opposition to the idea of planned and targeted birth control is something like believing there are limitless numbers of unconceived souls God wants to get born but needs everyone to get cracking on the reproduction cycle, a kind of “populate-for-the Church” approach. Isn’t it true that, since the times of nomadic early tribes, birth rates have reflected economic and social capacity? In that case, the debate needs to be framed, today, in terms of whether we, as a globalised species unable or unwilling to make sustainable use of much of the planet, ought to understand the morality of reproduction not in terms of a putative natural “law” but observable economic failures due to human greed and obsessions with property rights. Valerie Yule makes important points.

Stephen Kellett | 06 July 2011  

A good article, Bruce! The most significant issues for future population growth are the lack of women's rights and management of food production. In most countries (developed and undeveloped) women are not treated equally with men. Most women do not have access to secondary and tertiary education, which results in them not having access to good and well paid jobs and safe forms of artificial contraception and abortion on demand. With respect to food production, there is currently a huge amount of wastage because of poor management. All the various religions and governments are dominated by a masculine philosophy and do not promote women's rights for equality and access to the UN millenium goals of improved health and education services.

Mark Doyle | 06 July 2011  

Duncan's concern with world poverty is certainly commendable. What I find deeply concerning about his analysis is the absence of any acknowledgment to the single dominating factor that most critically determines the future of life on this planet, and compared with which the simple issue of population is misleading. That factor is per-capita consumption, driven by the mentality of economic growth. Once that is factored in, the discussion becomes totally different. Those who live in massively overpopulated countries consume miniscule per capita; we, even in diminishing populatins, consume it all. That's what is leading the planet into a catastrophic future.

LWA | 08 July 2011  

In 2008, UNESCO's chief of sustainable resources development Professor Shahbaz Khan, said overpopulation impacts were potentially more economically, socially and environmentally destructive than those of climate change, In 1992, Al Gore, said no goal is more crucial to heal the global environment than stabalising population. Most of our world is facing an intense famine caused by unsustainable populations.Some 76 nations (50 with s fertility rste gresater than 4 children per woman) are dependent upon food aid to sustain their populations. The United Nations Food program lists deforestation, overgrazing and soil erosion as the largest risk to food security, all linked to over-population made possible by food aid in the first place.Over the past century only Japan, South Kores, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Tunisia, Barbados and the Bahamas have progressed from developing-world status to, or close to developed-world status; all made the conversion during periods of active family planning programs. "Human abuse" of the planet and unfettered prosperity as we know up to the present is the consequence of rapidly spending the planet's capital and has to be addressed by this generation. Unequal distribution of wealth and power has destroyed all previous civilisations; "There is sufficiency in the world for men's needs but not for man's greed" Mohandas Ghandi

John Keen | 08 July 2011  

Over-population is a myth continually being fed by Malthusian ideologues. As has been pointed out by some comments below a Demographic Winter is upon us, especially in European nations. The abortive and contrceptive mentality is a great evil. These Sins call out to Heaven for Vengeance. God gives us our daily bread and many today have forgotten that we all face death and our afterlife will be Heaven or Hell. I find it strange that this article comes from the hand of a Catholic priest. Faith in God and His Goodness seems to have taken a huge dive since the 1960's. Many souls are being lost to the evil of "naturalism" whether it be of the "right wing" or "left wing" ideologies and the rush for a "New World Order." All of us live under the Social Reign Of Jesus Christ whether we know it or not.It is time to proclaim God's Rights for all souls on our planet and to live for God not the world.

Trent | 09 July 2011  

Great article. The relationship between population and the capacity to produce food needs to be better understood. .

As a WA farmer I think many Australians are blind to the fact that in less than a generation we could be facing a food shortage. Most people in the city haven?t been short of food for 3 generations, but future food security can?t be taken for granted. With much more money to be made from mining why would young people go into farming and be treated like second class citizens? We have just seen city interests destroy an economically and environmentally sustainable rural industry at the stroke of a pen (live cattle trade). While the mining industry is pushing wages it is making it very hard to labour intensive food industries like horticulture and food processing to survive. Our highly productive grains industry is very dependant on fossil fuel based products (Nitrogen fertilizer and chemicals) and declining reserves of Phosphate and Potassium. This production system could collapse as the price of these inputs increase, in which case pure economics will drive a return to organic farming practices. I attempt to present this issue with links to supporting information in www.organicfoodwa.net.au .

Barry Green | 13 July 2011  

Thanks Barry Green for focussing attention of readers on the present challenges to ongoing Australian food production.

Your WA experience is reflected in the east with some variation. Here in Victoria, our city-focussed government constructed a pipeline from the Goulburn River to supply Melbourne reservoirs before they had replaced leaking irrigation channels with impervious pipes to irrigate our Goulburn Valley food bowl. Meanwhile in Queensland, farming in the black soil plains is under threat because extracting coal seam gas is considered to be of greater State and national value.

As small country towns fade into ghost towns and larger regional centres continue to lose many of their younger adults to the cities, agriculture and pastoral production will barely be sustainable for social, let alone economic, reasons.

As the country/city divide widens, so does the gap between our food production capacity and food consumption rate.

Ian Fraser | 14 July 2011  

Thanks Ian,
We live in interesting times. At least the internet is allowing the discussion of some of these issues.

With all the excitement about the mostly foreign owned mining industry, both the Liberal party and the ALP seem to be ignoring the issue of food security and sustainable population. The Liberal Party website ideas section has some discussion on both issues. The public comments on the site suggest that there is a greater public awareness of the issue than there is within the party. Unfortunately the Liberal party don’t appear to read what is put up on their website, check out the following.
More food for thought, The Coming Famine by CSIRO scientist Julian Cribb :
and the website:

Barry Green | 17 July 2011  

If more efforts were made to expand access to contraceptives in many countries (not just developing; the US has horrific lack of access too) you would see birth rates drop drastically in many countries. Too many women are having children they cannot support and do not want (and in some cases, children that will kill them or leave them permanently unwell) because they have no way to not have children. There is no need for coercion. Simply give women in other countries the same level of choice that we have - to choose if we want children, and if so under what circumstances. The rest will follow on its own. (Along with creating women who are better-educated, with stable incomes, who spend more money, which stimulates the economy, and they pass these advantages to their kids, who are also better-fed and healthier...you'd be surprised at how far the benefits of contraceptive access can go.)

dartigen | 04 February 2014  

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